Episode 10!! Wow, thank you all so much for tuning into our show. Courtney, AJ and I are thrilled that so many of you are finding our words useful. We hope that you’ll stay with us.
Introduction to Hirsch’s work:
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., is best known as the author of the book Cultural Literacy and as the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation. For decades, he has championed the idea of a knowledge-rich, sequential curriculum. Although his work is focused on public and charter schools, many homeschoolers will be familiar with his “Grader” series: What Your First Grader Needs to Know, What Your Second Grader Needs to Know, and so on. The Core Knowledge Foundation also makes their entire K-8 scope-and-sequence document available for free, as well as their language arts and social studies programs. (Their site is coreknowledge.org, and we’ll put a link to it in the show notes.) It’s an incredible resource for homeschoolers who want a well-designed, coherent, and academically rigorous program that is broadly compatible with classical education. Hirsch’s most recent book is How to Educate a Citizen, in which he argues that American students need a shared knowledge base and a healthy sense of patriotism if we are ever going to overcome our divisions as a nation.
We discuss his newest book: How to Educate a Citizen
Our guest Julie is a fan of the Core Knowledge Sequence.
AJ: Ten years ago, when I was given a chance to design the curriculum for a PreK-12 classical school, I chose Core Knowledge as the basis for our Lower School’s program. Our Upper School’s Humanities program was all Western Great Books, and Core Knowledge gave kids the background they needed to discuss those intelligently. I still believe that it’s a very solid program and miles better than what you’ll find in most American public schools.
In the intervening years, though, I have developed some serious concerns about the assumptions that underlie Core Knowledge, and those tie into my problems with Hirsch’s most recent book, How to Educate a Citizen.
I’m fully on board with many of Hirsch’s basic ideas: that students need a knowledge-rich curriculum, that the curriculum should be cumulative and therefore carefully designed, that it should include heavy doses of world history and geography and literature, and that kids of all backgrounds are capable of high academic achievement when given the right kinds of support.
Hirch’s premise in How to Educate a Citizen is that a common knowledge base, instilled in elementary school, will lead to a unified national culture. He bases this assumption on periods in American history when, at least on the surface, we had such a thing, and he claims that it was largely created by a common curriculum in the form of textbooks like McGuffey’s Readers and the patriotic education of the 1940s and ‘50s. Right away, this raises some red flags for me. I’d argue that we’ve never had a unified culture in America, but we had and still have a dominant culture – WASP culture: white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. Emphasis on the white. When Hirsch talks about “cultural literacy,” he’s talking about fluency in the language and assumptions of this dominant culture, including its presumed superiority. In short, he’s conflating cultural unity with cultural dominance.
Courtney: This is a long-term divide in social studies education, but I don’t think it’s necessarily all that out of touch. Historically, one of the purposes of public school was to be educated in what it was to be a US citizen–think about the naturalization process, for example. You are actually tested on your knowledge of what it means to be a US citizen. Part of the explicit goal of social studies is to socialize children into our culture.
And yes, our idea of what our culture is, is changing, broadening, becoming more inclusive, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s an impossible task, although I do think it’s a difficult one. I thread that needle every week when I teach social studies, and it’s by far the most difficult task I face as a teacher. A couple of years ago, I read a blog post by Jasmine Lane, an early teacher from Minneapolis, and she made the excellent point that it’s a privilege to not have to worry about test scores–that for children who are not of the dominant culture, choosing not to know these pieces of knowledge is not an option if they want to be successful in this culture.
Jenn: I feel like again, like I do with religious curriculum I’m forced to cherry pick from the CK list of “cultural literacy” In other words what happens when the story of us- is no longer us?